“We’ll Serve No Swine/Before Its Time” says the bright winking pink and blue neon sign of my favorite barbecue juke joint on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Would it be that my friends at The Philadelphia Inquirer had eaten there and learned the wisdom of those words before serving up a heaping dose of journalistic trichinosis to its readers last week.

Make no mistake. I continue to be a big Inquirer fan. It’s fine dinin’ 99 percent of the time.

But having defended the bunch of them earlier this year, and waxed semi-eloquently about the need for great journalism, I do have the need to point out when the meat of a story is, well, a tad undercooked.

Such was the case with a piece headlined broadly, Why an Accused Philadelphia Police Officer is Still on the Force.

The top of the piece has the feel of one of those August thumbsuckers where editors used to say, “Kid, go through some files make a couple of calls and update this case, will ya. Things are slow.”

The resulting 800 word story would be headlined, “Hoffa, Still Dead, Missing.”

But here there is news — albeit buried 372 painfully constructed words down from the lede. It takes that long for the Inky to accuse two reporters from The Philadelphia Daily News of “complicating a federal investigation.”

The Inquirer does this based on a leaked task force report that says a victim of an officer’s groping attempts told FBI agents the reporters gave her some money among other bad things. The Daily News reporters deny they did anything wrong, but the impression left by the story, indeed the whole reason for the story, seems to be to raise the question of impropriety of the reporters and suggest their actions obstructed justice in the case.

In this, there is nothing wrong. The news media does not get a pass from criticism.

Except that the controversy here is old. It already had been aired in public through charges by the Fraternal Order of Police and the police commissioner in July

So why wind up the clock stem of this story so tightly as if there was something new? When there was not except for The Inquirer’s access to the records and the investigation?

None, really, except that the police through selective media leaks, get a chance to smear their accusers and blame “the media” for its problem of enabling a guy who for at least a decade, it appears, groped women routinely.

The Inky, after an exhaustive trek through police leaked files, does not in its grandly headlined story actually examine why the guy remains on the force.  That would involve a thorough look at  the police administrative code, union rules, police culture, or mis-steps by the initial investigators or any of the policeman’s superiors.

Nor does it stress with any passion or importance the changing stories of an unsettled woman who seems to have undone her own case and whose mother says actually blames herself for the groping.

Instead, it burns through 4,896 painfully vivisected words to note that The Inquirer in “taped interviews” confronted the two Daily News reporters.

(Journ students take note:  A “taped interview” is always recommended when you are investigating journalistic colleagues for “complicating a federal investigation.”  It shows that you are serious about your work and know technology.)

Well, good for them. I guess. As said, reporters are not immune from criticism.

On the other hand, neither should media criticism deviate from the rules of common sense and good journalism.

The Gene Roberts “Golden Era” of journalism was famous for printing stories that won Pulitzer Prizes, but less obviously it was famous for the numbers of stories it did not print. Legends who have walked Inquirer halls can tell you about that. How a task force worked a story for two years about the corruption of a major national candidate  (Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s vice presidential candidate) only to conclude that there were only smears there, not hard facts and firm links.  The story never ran and no one felt any sense of a “cover up.”  “Chief-dammit-I-know-there’s-something-in-here-somewhere” journalism never played large on the Inky marquee.

My suggestion is that such wise counsel might have come into play here. My own gut feeling is that The Inquirer did not run the piece to spite the competition, but out of its own perplexity about what to do with the story. Given the information, what choices did it have? Spike the story entirely and it runs the risk of a cover up.

The right move might have been a 500 word story on Page 43 of the Metro section, below the fold with the lede as this:

“A special task force raised the question of whether two reporters for The Daily News influenced the testimony of a witness in a high profile police abuse case, but both reporters explicitly denied the charges, citing a pattern of police leaks aimed at discrediting criticism of police corruption.”

But by going with it large, by inflating the context, by suggesting the rival reporters, not the police, were responsible for the blown prosecution, The Inky has done something I never thought I would see happen.

It got played by the cops.

The Philadelphia Police Department and its union, unable to explain how they can protect, nurture and serve a serial groper and a culture of corruption, did what comes naturally. They dissembled.

But they were smart about it. Through the new communication science of “really sneaky selective leaking,” they also managed to discredit those who criticized them.

But here is the truly wicked twist that racks up the points on the public relations communications pin ball machine for the police.

The police not only groped the reporters who wrote about the gropings.

They got The Inquirer to do the groping for them.

bob frump pic

There are a lot of facts emerging from the Zimmerman-Martin trial, but few truths.

Here is one, I know for sure.

If you decide to carry a gun, consider the complex consequences you carry with you.  Because the barrel does indeed shoot both ways.

I say this as a walking paradox. I am a life-long liberal who grew up in farm county and believe owning and shooting a gun is almost second nature in life.  I support the Second.  I also favor sane regulations of guns — also cars, train locomotives, airplanes, acids and napalm.

And I say this as someone who probably can shoot better than 80 percent of rock-ribbed right wingers who watched too many Red Dawn reruns. I have been thoroughly trained through many days of courses in the use of guns for self-defense, distance shooting and, well, assaults with assault rifles.

Hundreds of hours at gun ranges and classes mean I can put two rounds into a pie-plate target five football fields away with a good spotter, and also dump and reload an assault rifle magazine  while covering my field of fire with a pistol.  I grew up hunting pheasants from age 10 and am a passable wing shot.

For a short period of time, I also carried a loaded gun with me constantly.

I did all these things while living in Texas not because I felt the need for protection.

I was working on a book about the gun culture and I figured to know it, I needed to be in it. The book was at first intended to expose the ease with which powerful weapons can be purchased — and it will someday, given the right publisher.

But I also learned as I was learning about the gun culture that despite the blowhard exterior rhetoric, inside elements are far more responsible than my fellow Easterners and big city liberals might think.  And more responsible than the Glen Beck bozo gun proponents who get most of the face time on television.

My concealed carry handgun instructor at DFW Gun in Dallas did not tell me how to shoot punks for fun.  He told me to run.

He told us — in 2010 — that the luckiest day in his life was when he did not in effect become Zimmerman.  He went into a liquor store where a teenager with a huge revolver had the clerk at bay.  The instructor’s pistol was in his pickup — left behind in the glove compartment.

We all expected this to be a warning about how you should never forget your gun.

Instead, it was the instructor’s grateful tale of how he did NOT confront the kid with a gun. Instead, the instructor managed to talk the kid down.  In truth, the kid had no intent of harming anyone but himself. He was seeking “suicide by cop.” The police did not oblige the kid and took him into custody — where he calmed down, got some care and lived a fairly normal life.

“What would I have done for the rest of my life if I had shot that kid?”” the instructor asked.  “If I had had the gun, I would have used it.  How would I feel.. if I had….shot…that…kid?

Every time you carry a gun, keep this story in mind.  What consequences will you have even in a righteous shooting if you kill someone — even someone guilty as hell?  You think you just walk away from that because you were right?”

You don’t. Plenty of study show that the barrel shoots both ways. Even our toughest warriors feel some sort of guilt, remorse or a sense of “something unnatural” after they have killed, however “cleanly” following rules of warfare, even a worthy cause. Near as they can tell, it seems to be built into our social DNA.

In Texas, I fell in with some retired Army colonels who had been in combat. You could assume these guys were tough. They were. But they were also smart and had seen the real consequences of guns shots — not just a video game or a movie. To be clear, they are ardently pro-gun.

The discussion one night fell upon a ranch a hundred miles or so south of them where “coyotes” — ruthless guides of illegal immigrants — had threatened ranch hands and fired at them.

“Why not just buy the ranch hands rifles for defense?” I asked. “If ever it would be justified, that would be it, right?”

We were in a hunting cabin with several semi-automatic rifles safely stored nearby. My friends had made it clear they were no fans of immigrants. So I thought it was a question that would be received well.

They were silent for a moment, and looked at each other. There was no eye rolling. Just a polite click of the eyes back and forth between them to me as if I had mud on my nose but it was too embarrassing to mention.

“You have second and third order effects,” my friend finally said.

“It sounds like a good plan,” he said. “The first order effect could more or less be handled if you kill the coyote or drug smuggler, or whatever, and they don’t kill you back.”

“But the consequences of actually shooting a person and living with that….” he said, and paused. “….that’s the second and third order effects. Liability might be one effect.  Your own mental well-being almost certainly will be another and it will work on you for a very, very long time.

“It takes a lot for soldiers to do that and live with it. Civilians? Well. It’s just not a good plan if you think of what you are really paying and what you are getting… You might have a few days peace, your cattle will be safe for a while, but you have a lifetime to think about what you did…and you will…”

Even if you know that though, guns can you lead you on. glock

Even if you are more or less playing a role, as I was, you feel a little too empowered sometimes.

Or so it was for me.

The four days I “carried,” I felt stupid most of the time.  I have trouble keeping track of an iPhone.  A mean little .380 Ruger automatic wasn’t much bigger and I had to struggle not to unconsciously take it out of my pocket and put it on a desk and then walk away head down on some article. There was one moment at work in my office job when I nearly “answered” my Ruger at a meeting when the iPhone rang. Instruction or not, this was awkward.

But the clincher for me was my driving.

I’m not an aggressive driver, but I’m not passive either.  I hold my own on packed highways and I don’t like being cut off.  I am not troublesome about it. I just get frustrated and mumble sometimes. “Idiot.” “Thanks pal.” “Real nice!” And my favorite: “Come on lady (fella, kid, grandma, grandpa)!” And “Go already!” That was the worst of it.

With the gun on board, I drifted toward troublesome.  If someone cut me off, I was unconsciously aware of that gun and went just a little faster on the car-villains tail or honked the horn a little longer. The self-muttering became more pronounced and profane.  I would pat the gun to make sure it was there and drive a bit faster, yell a bit louder.

And somewhere in there, I became aware of that. And hung the gun up, never to carry it again. It was empowering me all right. But empowering toward what? An argument over a traffic slight? Lethal force to settle a fender bender?

Confronting a 17-year-old kid?

I am a writer by trade and what floated back to me was some advice to writers from Chekov.


“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

And this anonymous saying:  “When your tool is a hammer, you see the world ‘s problems as nails.”

If my tool was a Ruger, how was I seeing the world? And where would that take me?  If I did not intend to use the gun, why was I so to speak hanging it on the wall in the first act?

I believe the right to carry carries awesome responsibility that only a very few of us can handle — and that I could not, despite all my training.  It confers incredible power upon the carrier.  And it invites catastrophe if that power leads to confrontations that would not ordinarily take place.

Guns shoot both ways, folks. Believe it. There are “first order” effects when the gun throws a slug at a target.

But the “second and third order” events come hurtling back quick toward the shooter — in terms of liability and psychological impairment.

I wish Mr. Zimmerman — if only for his own sake — had gotten the gun instructor who warned me about this simple fact.  I wish the macho pro Stand Your Ground advocates were also next to me in that class.

And I wish most of all that responsible gun owners — not  those rooting-on tragic confrontations such as the Zimmerman case — would dispense wisdom and caution in a loud enough voice to rise above the din.

Juking the Stats to Create a National Crime Wave and the “Ferguson Effect”

If you’ve been watching the “news” or even reading quality rags like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, you no doubt are troubled by the arrival of the “Ferguson Effect” — a raging “New National Crime Wave” brought on by the events of Ferguson, Missouri.

Short hand definition of the “Ferguson Effect”:  the police are on the run and black people are killing everybody.

PogoOr as the cartoon character Pogo used to say, “Warn the gentry, the pesttiles is loose…”

By Monday, Mika was shaking her head dourly in agreement as Joe growled that the cops were on the run, see, and it was no good for America, see.  Anybody could see it, you dirty rats, and Joe had seen it a long time ago, see, and he’d tried to warn us, see, but we wouldn’t listen.


The meme spread throughout the virtual amusement park we call cable television news.  There of course, the industrial strength baffles of the lungs of idiots blew a few anecdotal sparks into a raging forest fire of dystopia and borderline racist fantasies. Loop in images of riots and video wallpaper of burning stores and police funerals. We came damned close to “Birth of a Nation” hysteria by Monday evening before Sepp Blatter and Fifa mercifully took over the news cycle.

imagesThis would be laughable of course were it not for the weight of the Wall Street Journal columnist, and to a lesser degree reporters from the New York Times, kicking off the “trend” with hard statistics.

In Milwaukee, homicides were up 180% by May 17 over the same period the previous year,” writes Heather MacDonald of the Wall Street Journal. “Through April, shootings in St. Louis were up 39%, robberies 43%, and homicides 25%.

Boom-boom.  She carpet bombs us with other statistics.  Baltimore. Atlanta. Los Angles. Chicago. I’ve been everywhere, boys.  I’ve been everywhere.  Woo-hoo. And gun violence is up! Murder!

Stats fly like sparks from a steam engine funnel.  She is under power and moving right down that track.

She writes:

The nation’s two-decades-long crime decline may be over. Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America.

Wow.  We are on a slippery slide to hell. Then for a change Morning Joe is right?


Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal commit the simplest of statistical errors.  They take a hand full of small numbers and forecast huge results.  This of course is a prime violation of statistical analyses.

Says Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow

Our brains have a difficult time with statistics. Small samples are more prone to extreme outcomes than large samples, but we tend to lend the outcomes of small samples more credence than statistics warrant. (Our brain) is impressed with the outcome of small samples but shouldn’t be. Small samples are not representative of large samples. Large samples are more precise. We err when we intuit rather than compute.

So let’s look at what could have gone wrong with the Wall Street Journal analysis. Let’s do some reporting and take a look at what may be the crescendo moment of the column — that the peaceful, crime-down era of 20 years is gone because of Ferguson.

“…the first six months of 2014 continued a 20-year pattern of growing public safety. Violent crime in the first half of last year dropped 4.6% nationally and property crime was down 7.5%. Though comparable national figures for the first half of 2015 won’t be available for another year, the January through June 2014 crime decline is unlikely to be repeated.

So we are so screwed. It’s back to Gotham City for us.

Can we at least test that one?

National figures won’t be in for awhile but some major city figures are and here is what they say.
Violent crime rates, January – May 2015 (Murders, rapes, grand larceny, burglary, theft)

New York, down 6.9 percent

Chicago, down 7 percent. 

Philadelphia up 4 percent 

Boston down 21 percent

So at least in four very large cities –two cited by the columnist for increased murder — the major crimes rate has dropped, and dropped more than 2014’s drop from 2013.  Philadelphia has registered an increase — but a  small one.

So Baltimore, LA and Milwaukee are up.  Other cities are down.

Can I predict a decrease in crime from these numbers?  No.

Or a continuation of low crime rates. Of course not.

They are a small bunch of numbers. Fortunately.

The truth is that our homicide rates have fallen so much from the 1960’s and 1990’s that even a short “hot spot” of murders can juke the stats enormously.  As can a few “cold spots” where no one is murdered.

Witness the murders cited by the columnist.  In percentages, they blow the doors off.  But in real numbers? Not so much.

Milwaukee saw an increase of “180 percent” but in fact that is 29 murders — six a month.  And when you drill down on them, some of those murders are bizarre and tragic but not at all Ferguson trendy.  Or a trend at all.  (A toddler is killed in a hit and run and her father cuts loose on the driver who cuts loose on him. Three dead. Bingo: ten percent murder rate increase.)

Atlanta?  It had 26 murders last year through May and now has 34 — a movement of 8. Or a monthly increase of a bit more than one per month.

Los Angeles jumped from 99 to 114. St Louis is up to 55 from 44 YTD 2014.

You get the picture.  The loss in life is tragic, but the percentages take small numbers and hype the impact.

(“Boy Ages by 20 Percent Overnight” makes a fine tabloid headline, but a 5-year-old kid turning six is just one day older. )

No one can project anything from such small numbers. Least of all national trends.

Murder, like politics, is intensely local.

And far larger numbers than these will be needed to correlate any trends — yet determine causality.

So what have we got here, other than studied histrionics?  Is it just a studied misuse of stats for the sake of a good story, committed by well-meaning reporters straining on deadline?edward-final-blog-post

I think it’s a finer delusion and less innocent than that.

I’ll give the columnists and reporters at The Times a benefit of the doubt and concede that they earnestly believe what they are saying is true.

But that’s the problem.

So fervently do they believe it in fact, that they cut away all data that does not support their belief of what is true.  Belief-based systems, whether political bias or just unexamined instincts, are at the heart of our problem these days, according to “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

Look, the murders are of concern, particularly in Baltimore, where there might be some traction to the worst case scenario of cops pulling back.  (Or there might not be.) Common sense tells you to keep a watch on things there.

Rather than pose the problem and consider the data objectively, however, our earnest correspondents have engaged in statistical topiary.

They trim away the data that does not support their vision, and also block it from our view.  Anything that does not fit the final image they have in mind gets lopped off.

What they present seems concise and well-formed.  Even craft-like.

In fact, it is a finely crafted illusion. (Maybe a delusion.)

We deserve better journalists than data versions of Edward Scissorhands.



Should you be tempted to tag the New York Times reflexively as a liberal rag, comes now this smoldering heap of statistical sophistry to disprove it at least for a day.

Is NYC descending into a murder pit again because of the new liberal mayor? Hard to think otherwise from this story. And it is hard to argue with statistics and “data mining” that seems to show a 30% increase in murders. Deaths by guns has been rising these past two years. You can’t argue with those trends.

Unless you know that the Times reporters either knowingly or unknowingly made the rookiest mistake of all and assume that small numbers equal large trends. Quite the reverse, any good statistical reporting seminar would warn you agains this most basic of errors. Don’t project small numbers.

And unless you compared not just gun deaths but all murder/deaths year-to-year, at which case you would find that through the first five months of the year? Only up 15% from May 2014 YTD not 30%

You could also note that major crimes — murder, rape, assault, grand larceny burglary — are down nearly 7% year-to-year for 2015 versus 2014.
And you could also note that murders and crime were at an all time low as recently as December 2014 — the mayor’s first year in office.

And over the past two years, a decent measure of the mayor’s terms, murder deaths are only up 1.7% ytd.

So unless you have a huge stake in how you die — for me, dead is dead be it by gun or Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe in the library — there’s nothing real clear here that shows any real trends of any murder rates.
Look, the run-up in recent shootings is disturbing from an anecdotal standpoint and does demand attention — from the Times and the police.
But harnessing statistics in an effort to independently make the case against the mayor — and misusing statistics badly — confuses the issue. The stats are something like what I would carve up if I were the FOP’s public affairs guy and wanted to hit de Blasio with a cream pie.
Also doubly objectionable is the linkage in the story that the crime “increase” may be due to the mayor’s cessation of stop and frisk. (Declared unconstitutional before the mayor hit office, which is not mentioned in the story.)
Hey, the murder rate may be going up. It may not. It seems to me that it’s a bunch of criminals killing criminals, which in one sense is unfortunate and in another more fortunate than other scenarios. But I don’t know either.
The Times most certainly does not. Though it pretends to use science to suggest it does.
So this is just another one of those “own the news cycle” type stories that really gets us no further toward understanding what’s real.
(If these guys were political reporters. they would have declared McGovern president after the first wards in Cook County reported a landslide)

Ben Bradlee deserves his viking funeral.  The ship should make three passes of journalistic valhalla.  Long shall his shield shine from high in the hall of heroes.  He was one of the greats.

But he was not flawless and if he did indeed set some high water marks, he also left some nasty looking rings as the bathtub of American journalism drained over the years into today’s murky puddle.  Here are the asterisks on a distinguished career.

* Watergate cut two ways and journalism has been sliding down that blade for four decades, largely to its loss.  The now famous “two source” rule prior to Watergate was the lame excuse of checkout lane tabloids. Bradlee added it to the mainstream media canons of ethical practice.  Did the ends justify the means in Watergate?  I believe it did, but the resulting wide use of sources to allege serious wrong-doing sure has come back to bite readers and journalists in the back on hundreds of occasions since then.

Too often, “Watergate” changed investigative reporting form a meticulous marshaling of facts to a game of access to sources. And the goal too often became not an investigation of outright corrupt practices but the search for scandal — with political decapitation as the end game.

The end result is the casual “some say” journalism practiced on cable news today and reporting from false sources that helped lead us to war in Iraq.  Major factors in the decline and failure of journalism can be traced back to Watergate — and the overuse of anonymous sources.  Its techniques ought to have been a one-hit wonder.  Instead, they became templates.

*Bradlee undermined robust, factual, meticulously documented “Chicago style” investigative reporting when he torpedoed the “Mirage Tavern” Pulitzer for the Chicago Sun Times in the 1970’s — one of the great unrecognized stories in American journalism.  The reporters there had pulled off an imaginative and ambitious “sting” — opening a bar and grill and then recording every solicited bribe from every city employee and policeman.  Bradlee opposed the Pulitzer, arguing that journalists cannot lie to get a story.

And of course they can’t.  What he missed — or chose to miss — is that the Sun Times reporters didn’t lie.  They opened a real bar.  They lied about nothing.  It was brilliant and imaginative reporting about the real world, and its reporting was far more careful than Woodward and Bernstein’s and far more ethical than “Jimmygate” — Bradlee’s embarrassing Pulitzer gaff.

* While Bradlee had a carefully cultivated river boat gambler charisma, he was far more of the Washington social salon than salt of the earth saloon.  He invited to dinner the very folks who were being covered by his reporters in the capitol and maintained an ambitious social calendar.   This is the turf of publishers, not editors, and Bradlee’s crossing the line gave the okay for today’s obscene Beltway scene where journalists hob nob with “sources” and movie stars at the National Press Club banquet. If Washington seems impervious to outside sources and influences, if it all seems a comfortably maintained atmosphere, Bradlee helped build that bio-dome.  The idea that this type of socialization leads to good sources and access is a weak justification for lazy reporting.  It substitutes gossip for shoe leather reporting and real news.

His accolades of course outweigh the asterisks.  They are well represented elsewhere and a part of our national folklore.  And ought to be.  But the asterisks are real and need to be noted.

“I was surprised to see you siding with Rich Aregood in condemning Bill Marimow,” said a recent email concerning my comments on the recent Inquirer/Daily News controversy. (Groping for Stories at The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
That would make two of us because I hold both journalists in high regard, and both are quite capable of fighting their own sides.
Bill is currently editor of The Inquirer and I know no better, more ethical editor in this world. Rich, the former editorial page editor of The Daily News, is a jewel of clear and concise outspoken opinions. They are two titans of Philadelphia journalism and a debate, directly or indirectly, between them, is a show not to be missed. In stature and journalistic importance, I am but a flee on either’s arse.
But to be clear, it’s their debate, not mine. My intent never was to question The Inquirer’s ethics or motives in printing the Daily News “expose” — just to point out that it was (and remains) a steaming mess of a story.
This happens. It’s not the day the music died. It’s a mistake. It’s not, in my opinion, some deep-seated Pulitzer envy on the part of Marimow or the Inquirer staff.
The Daily News was and is a fabulous foil to The Inquirer, but I cannot imagine a world where Bill Marimow or most Inky staffers walk the floors at night wondering how to avenge themselves against the tab because it won a Pulitzer two years ago.
And it’s well for The Daily News to remember and reflect upon a proud heritage of pokes and prods against The Inquirer, particularly, as I recall during the Mayor Goode years, when every day The Daily News suggested that every Inky reporter (including me, one would think) was supposedly in the tank for Wilson or on his payroll.  Or when Pete Dexter hung Inquirer management out to dry in a national magazine article.
But the point of my critique of The Inquirer has nothing to do with that legacy and rivalry.   It has to do with one story I thought (and think) was poorly done and ought not to have been published as it was.
There are simple reasons for my opinion:
1) The story does not deliver on its headline and lede of explaining why a bad cop is still on the street.
2.) Instead, at its best, it explains why prosecutors and police felt they could not bring a case. At its worst, it buys in wholesale to a punch list of task force and police excuses for not effectively managing a culture of police abuse.
3.) The task force report deals mostly with the changing “testimony” of one of the victims of a groping — who is so shaken by the events over the past six years that she now thinks it is her fault that she was groped by a policeman. (So not a great witness.) This is the proximate cause of no prosecution.  It is a victim first featured by The Daily News, whose reporters’ responsibility is clear, clean and accurate reporting initially — not the legal presentability of an emotionally fraught witness six years later. 
4.) The police version is pretty much taken as justifiable fact without much probing into initial efforts, police culture, “rape team” procedure, all the myriad subtleties of investigating such crimes, or– perhaps most importantly — consideration that the task force report might just be hugely self serving in explicating the police and prosecutors in failing to manage a police culture of abuse that is clearly out of control. In nearly 5,000 words, there is little to suggest that the investigation might have been handled differently, the witnesses treated more sympathetically, the administrative measures surrounding police discipline reviewed, or that the prosecutors could have grown a pair and bluffed the bad cop into a plea bargain.  All issues worthy of discussion.
5. ) Then, at around word 372, the issue abruptly pivots and dumps the blown prosecution at the feet of the very Daily News reporters who first brought the issues to the attention of the public. Supposedly they gave gifts to the woman and told her she should not talk to the police.
6.) In the most ironic of moments, the Daily News reporters who reported the problem then are accused in The Inquirer article of “complicating a federal investigation” into the very criminal behavior the reporters discovered. (There is no known offense of “complicating a federal investigation; if there were, most journalists would be in prison.)
7.) The accusations of small gifts have no substantiation aside from the troubled woman, while the reporters strongly reject that notion and have notes to substantiate their version of her interview.

It’s a reach. Boy is it a reach. In fact.  And in tone.
No reader could have come out of this story without suspecting that the Daily News reporters some how “put in the fix” in some way. The task force sources were given every benefit of the doubt, and all high ground, the findings carved in stone and unquestioned. The reporters’ version was questioned, and reported in very skeptical tones with no clear context of facts arguing for their version of the affair.
Was there news that the task force blamed the reporters? You bet. But in my opinion, that was a he-said/she said piece worth 500 words on page 43.  The issues already had been staked out on page one with the FOP president leveling charges against The Daily News.
The “take out” piece, with its superheated headline and rhetoric, was a mistake and poor judgment in my opinion.  It was badly reasoned and badly written, one-sided and misleading.
It happens. The best people make mistakes. Move on.  Do real news. Rinse. Repeat.

Ignored by me in my scorched earth critique of Philadelphia news media coverage of news media, was a fine piece in the City Paper last month by Daniel Denvir entitled What does the fight over Philly.com mean for the future of Philly journalism?  He does a nice job giving an overview and managed to extract a now famous quote from the head of philly.com web, Bob Cauthorn.

Cauthorn, who also serves as chief operating officer at Greenspun Media Group, owner of the Las Vegas Sun, faults a newsroom attitude that would ‘rather win a Pulitzer than win 20,000 new readers. And that’s a disease.'”

He also noted that viewership was up at Philly.com — the sort of buzz-feed bottom feeder version of the Inquirer and Daily News websites — and that Philly.com subsidized money-losing parts of the newspaper.

Interesting for many reasons.  First of all is the notion that Pulitzers and new readers are not compatible — and in fact a Pulitzer may have an exchange rate of sort in thousands of readers.

The second is that Cauthorn’s steady job in Las Vegas — obviously considered a success by him and by his bosses there and here — may be a harbinger of how life may play out for The Inquirer.

So how is life at The Las Vegas Sun? Which incidentally promotes itself as a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper.

We tickled the electronic Rolodex and found a few journalists who worked with Cauthorn out there.

“Well, you sure aren’t going to see any Pulitzers anymore at The Las Vegas Sun,” one former reporter said.  “It’s all pretty much a feature section now.  There is some sign they may be building up a political team after the other reporters all left, but it’s a wait and see operation.  It kind of falls back on lots of photos and features on the Strip.”

But it is a healthy and robust metro newspaper no doubt, run relevantly by Cauthorn, not hellbent on Pulitzers for sure, but healthy.  And relevant.


Not exactly.  It is not a free-standing paper.  It is a few pages each week within the other metro paper — a ghost of what is called a Joint Operating Agreement.  What exists mostly is Cauthorn’s web op.  The Las Vegas Review Journal is the dominant newspaper.

But the Las Vegas Sun dominates on the web, right?  That is Cauthorn’s gift?  He has set the world on its head through his web strategy and outguns the Review Journal on the web?

Well, no.  They were close back in December, with the Sun at around the 13,000th most trafficked website and the Review Journal at around 11,000th.

And then, through today’s date, the Sun went into a steep slide into 14,000th place and the Review Journal struck north to around 8,500.  No doubt there are other measurements that would better evaluate the two sites, but there is no denying that this one says there is a broad rise and fall in the fate of Las Vegas web sites.

In that light, how is Philly.com doing?  Cauthorn says that unique page views were up 50% from February 2013 through the end of the year.  There is no reason to doubt that figure, but it would be interesting to see an update because the broad scheme of Alexa seems to show Philly.com as flat or falling.

The more important question is this:  Do advertisers even care?  Sites such as Philly.com are creatures that thrive only when ad rates are good and today’s group of ad buyers has driven down rates relentlessly through the use of online instant bidding where alogrithms drive the last wasted fraction of a penny from the offer.   All sites such as Philly.com are losing money year to year in a gusher — some public companies reporting revenues down by one third.  The situation is bad and was a year ago when Advertising Age noted some paid sites were ratcheting back on advertising. “Why jump on a failing model?” one new web developer asked.

Why indeed?  No publication with any success is following the Philly.com model where there is no paywall and no quality branding.  I don’t know Cauthorn but his words strike me to be those of one of the original unreconstructed webbies who grew from the 1995 uprising of free sites.  Of course, he’s right when he points out there are unreconstructed newspaper ink stained wretches out there who aren’t doing themselves any good by resisting the trends of the web.

I’m just not certain Cauthorn understands that he himself may be outdated as well, undone by a concept that came and went when he was sidetracked by the dangers of Pulitzer disease and flipped a coin that came up “free” when he should have chosen “fee.”


As George Norcross III tightens his grip on the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer, he has signaled to staffers his intent to demote or fire recent Putlizer Prize winner Inga Saffron at the same time he continues to use a for-free ultraconserviative,  Koch Brothers backed “news service” to cover state politics in Harrisburg on Philly.com. 


“He’s made no secret about his thoughts on Inga,” said one staffer. “He’s mentioned it to several reporters.  


“He says, ‘She’s too negative and goes around just writing negative things about our beautiful buildings in this city.’  He thinks she should be replaced by a reporter in South Jersey or start covering South Jersey.”


The Pulitzer committee wrote that Saffron, the newspaper’s architecture critic, deserved the ultimate award for journalism because her writing “blends expertise, civic passion, and sheer readability into arguments that consistently stimulate and surprise.”  


Her award was the most recent for a newspaper famous for good criticism and tough investigative reporting.  But the prospect of that continuing under a Norcross ownership is not bright.  By the end of this month, the warring owners of The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com must settle who runs things through a high bidder takes all auction.  


Norcross, a multi-millionaire insurance executive and a self-acknowledged ruthless political boss of the South Jersey Democratic machine, has bumped the opening bid from $55 million to $77 million.  It is unclear whether  any “white knight” bidders will top that. 


The use of the Koch Brothers backed news service seems an extreme example of loosening news standards at the operation, but others say it is increasingly typical of how Philly.com gathers “news.” 


The controversy surfaced as several staff members noticed that Philly.com, the Norcross controlled website associated with the newspaper company, had begun using the free, ultra-conservative service rather than Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent stories.  Worse, the background of the service was not noted. 


The stories appeared as being written by “Pennsylvania Independent” news service without stating that the group is part of a nationwide effort to place articles in local papers funded by the controversial and conservative Koch brothers. They are the key funders of the right-wing Tea Party movement.   

 Pennsylvania Independent t is a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria., Va.,According to the Center for Public Integrity, 95 percent of  Franklin Center’s money  in 2011 came from Donor’s Trust, a foundation that has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing causes. Charles Koch is one of the financiers to Donor’s Trust.

For the Pennsylvanian Independent, it has been a coup to have stories published on the web site associated with the biggest newspaper in the state.   

 In late October, the true colors of the site and its “news” broke out when the Pennsylvania Independent advertised for a new Harrisburg reporter.  The ad, on JournalismJobs.com, said essentially that the reporter candidates should “support free-market thinking and small government.”  

News standards at Philly.com have not been considered high to begin with but the use of what is essentially conservative propaganda is startling on a number of fronts. 

 Yet Norcross and his chief web architects, daughter Lexie Norcross and Robert Cauthorn, believe Philly.com can be the savior of the properties, and the villains here are old-form journalists who refuse to play ball with this “new news.”

Cauthorn faults a newsroom attitude that would “rather win a Pulitzer than win 20,000 new readers. And that’s a disease.”

But it’s also difficult to find Cauthorn successes when his CV is examined closely.  He started an early online edition of an Arizona newspaper, was canned as digital exec at a San Francisco paper in 2006, and holds out the Las Vegas Sun as a successful venture. 

But the Sun is in effect a failed newspaper, published only as a slim insert in the other Las Vegas paper.  Its success as an online journalism venture is dubious.  Before Christmas in 2009, the paper fired half its staff and changed its focus from daily news to feature stories and analysis. Then, in September 2011, the paper laid off a dozen additional employees.  The Sun is little more than an online ghost of its former self now and hardly dominates online news in Las Vegas.  Web analysis software shows it six down from the top on Google for those looking for news about Las Vegas. 

The strategy Crauford is using in Philadlphia also seems out of whack and discredited.  The thought here is that the down-market Philly.com can attract huge numbers of viewers through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tricks and stunts to replicate a Buzzfeed type of local web.  The Inquirer.com site can then follow a paid strategy and the company gets the best of both worlds. 

Only it does not work well. Boston and the Globe pretty much have proved that after investing millions.  What works seems to be the NY Times and Wall Street Journal model where strong, Pulitzer-prize winning quality papers offer some material for free, but then charge after, say, the fifth story.  It’s not a secret money minter, but it has made some significant dough for the Times and the Journal. 

But at those two papers, the popular online out reach has been classy, with Freakonomics bloggers and David Pogue type reviews.  Clever graphics bring in millions of viewers.

Even then, all papers have been hurt and hurt badly by the “flight to quantity” led by media buyers and automatic algorithm “buys” that seek out the lowest possible rates.  Cauthorn claims Philly.com is the most read site in Philadelphia but web analytics software places it at number four.   But even if it were number one, its electronic ad revenues have to be down.  All are and by up to one-third to one-half of previous years.  

In the meantime, the “old guard” journalists say they are not anti-online, but want to do it in a classier way than Philly.com — in other words, follow the successful leads of the Times and the Journal.  But the Inquirer.com site is locked up, literally.  Unless you already subscribe to the Inkie, you can’t get into its site without a password.  There is no “first five” free offer such as at The Journal and the Times. 

By contrast, if you search on Google for news, Philly.com comes up quickly (about six down these days) but with the cheap linkbait stories such as Tipsy the Narcoleptic Squirrel — funny if you had not already seen it on five other sites. 

But at least Tipsy was not funded by the tea party and came by her dizziness honestly. 




“The devil’s finest trick,” wrote Baudelaire in the 1800’s,” is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

In the post-post modern times of 2014, the more refined trick is to convince us that good men and women do not exist.

And that is a sleight of hand so deftly played by George Norcross III that many of the good folks with The Philadelphia Inquirer may well be headed over the side with hardly a tear shed in a few weeks.

This is so because the smart money says Norcross will be the last man standing when a bid among quarreling owners finishes by the end of May.  The bid for the paper — sold just a few years back for $55 million — will start in the $70 million plus range.  Norcross already has offered that — in what he hopes is a pre-emptive move against the papers’ rescue by  Lewis Katz or any others riding a white horse.

The other news media in general have sort of sighed about the ongoing struggles at The Inquirer.  The writer for Philadelphia Magazine announced he has stopped covering the event because it was the equivalent of bad television — the crew of Star Trek stumbling to one side of the screen to another.  The website Big Trial, at its salacious worst, dismissed the issues at play as “all pussy and bullshit.”

Such is the state of cynicism in the city.  At its best, such cheap ironic resignation is a disguised cowardice.  It is the same camo that covers the lazy workings of fearful journalistic minds that report objective and false “moral equivalents.” Thus it was that throughout the reporting of the events, Norcross was somehow portrayed as the moral equivalent of the senior editors at The Inquirer who will be fired if Norcross wins the bid.  And the paper’s editors and writers — heroic in most cultures — were portrayed as sluts and knaves.

Most of these folks I know.  They are good men and women who seek to report facts and truths.  They cannot be reduced to “liberal” or “conservative” thinkers because they are journalists.  They are imperfect as we all are, but they have chosen a path I still consider noble:  examining events and facts and providing a report of them upon which readers may act with affect.  Without them, without that function, we’ve lost the essential fourth estate.

The Philadelphia citizenry — its leaders and large and small — are about to hand over its metro newspaper to an effective but ruthless politician, who claims to be acting on behalf of the papers’ readers at the same time he sends out campaign contribution solicitation letters to its reporters and smears women journalists.  HIs electronic strategy is pegged to a hopelessly outdated and discredited “Boston”approach.  His chief claim to fame as a Democratic machine politician is a real talent for running ruthless political campaigns a la Republicans like Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes.  He thinks a rally good story on Philly.com is a contest among a narcoleptic squirrel, a how to story on sex in airplanes, and the opening of a South Jersey strip mall.

Life will go on if Norcross wins.  Just as it would if Donald Trump directed the Philadelphia Orchestra.  But it would be life greatly diminished.

And here at least is one prayer that the people of the city — particularly those who can speak with money — understand that the moral equivalencies are not equal here.  If Norcross wins, there aren’t just a few losers on the other side.  There are millions.

For those with the means to join this fight and the ability to change the outcome, let them please join now.



To misquote Bogie in Deadline USA, “You hear that Norcross? Those are the presses. You can’t do anything about them.”

Though focus groups from George will no doubt “prove” that architectural critic is not a reader-friendly staff position, Inqa proves it is, and that my friends is the difference between hack political bosses, data, and good, artful journalism.

Casablanca, Content and The Philadelphia Inquirer: How George Norcross Damages Editorial Quality
Posted: February 10, 2014 in Contemporary Commentary
“The key to good content,” Michael Bloomberg told me years ago, before he was mayor, “is the ability to write Casablanca.”

“You can aggregate all the data you want about World War II, Northern Africa, gambling and the underground, but you can’t copy Casablanca.”

The context for that long ago meeting was a content exhibition where my employer at the time, a bond rating agency, feared Bloomberg would get into their business. He would not, he said, because the company essentially was the Casablanca of bond raters and did something Bloomberg could never match.

Local and regional newspapers, if they are to succeed, need to be focused on creating the conditions that create Casablanca. They don’t need to do that on a daily basis, but the readers need to know they can count on it frequently enough. The newspaper, to add value, must present something that no other local weekly or monthly magazine can.

All of which is a roundabout but necessary way to explain why the fight among owners at The Philadelphia Inquirer is not just about “business” – as most writers have suggested – but about the quality of the paper.

Part-owner George Norcross, a good businessman who is also a self-acknowledged ruthless boss of South Jersey Democrats, has proposed a number of “reforms” to the newspaper that he believes will place it back on a solid financial situation.

He has over the past year closed down the op-ed page, insisted that five top editors be fired and replaced with seven New Jersey reporters, placed his young rookie daughter more or less in charge of a free website, and sought to dismiss the top editor, Bill Marimow, and the city editor, Nancy Phillips.

If only the newspaper follows this good business plan, he has said, then the paper will regain a robust financial standing and serve as a valuable “fourth estate” in the plan by giving the readers what they want.

In a brilliant bit of sleazy but successful channeling of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, he also has flipped the debate of the recent controversies by putting Marimow and Phillips in the dock for somehow “meddling” in the newsroom. Of course, if you are running the newsroom, it’s hard to say how your best editorial judgments comprise “meddling.”

Through leaks and innuendo, though, Norcross has taken his opponents’ strengths and positive motives and turned them into something dark and suspect. Largely this is because the local media outlets can’t help but swallow the seductive story line without examination or counterbalance. Largely, it’s been salacious and self-parodying as writers have focused on tangential affairs of an excellent woman journalist whose success and power, apparently, must be consigned to that same dangerous feminine libido of great Tea Party concern. The local stories, in various forms, all seem to somehow suggest Phillips is a seductive witch who twists men around her little figure.

That’s nonsense of course. She just sends them to jail when they kill people. She’s a great investigative reporter. But I’ve covered that before.

What is not so clear to readers is how exactly Norcross’s businesses plan infringes on editorial quality and presents ethical concerns.

I can help you there. I’ve run newspapers, both editorial and business side. I’ve published magazines. I’ve been creating and hawking websites since 1996. Still am. I know a little bit about this.

So let’s go back in time – not far back in time – and see what sort of “Casablancas ” The Inquirer has written. And not far back in time mind you. Let’s say March 25, 2012, and the story: “

Powerful Medicine: How George Norcross used his political muscle to pump up once-ailing Cooper Hospital.

The piece is a classically good piece of investigative and analytical reporting where the two authors take a look at the Norcross machine in motion. Even-handed and fair, the article details how a hospital has fueled Norcross’s political steam roller and it reads a little like a sub-plot of All the King’s Men, where a fictional Huey Long both creates and then distorts institutions of good to his ends.

Born at Cooper, Norcross is unabashed in his enthusiasm for the hospital that he sees as performing vital medical, economic, and social roles. He also sees it as crucial to the rebirth of the city.

He adds: “I’ve come to see that Cooper’s interests and Camden’s are inseparable.”

But there’s something else that is inseparable – Norcross’ political muscle and Cooper’s agenda. In some ways, the hospital has become another piece of his political apparatus, to the mutual benefit of Democrats and Cooper.

In politics-drenched New Jersey, it’s not unusual for hospitals, with their big payrolls, big budgets, and big thirst for government money, to be political players. But few play the game as aggressively or with as much firepower as Cooper.

No other nonprofit hospital in New Jersey spends so much on lobbyists. In fact, it ranks among the top 25 nonprofit hospitals in America for lobbying expenditures according to national data.

With $775 million in annual revenue, Cooper is the largest hospital in South Jersey. And over the years, firms with ties to board members or those with a pattern of donations to Democrats in Norcross’ base of Camden County have won millions of dollars in hospital-related contracts, public records show.

Among those working at Cooper in recent years: Norcross’ insurance business and the law firm of his brother.

None of this is illegal. But the flow of campaign donations from firms doing business with the hospital has helped sustain Norcross’ Democratic organization, which over the last two decades has not only established control in towns and counties in South Jersey but has also become a driving force in the state capital.

To pull off this type of story – informative, insightful, fair – you need experienced editors and reporters. And when you do it, you gain the eyes and ears of readers, not just in South Jersey but also across that state and Philadelphia as well.

Cut those experienced editors and reporters, or reassign them to the chicken-dinner circuit in South Jersey and you l

ose the advantage of Casablanca coverage. You lose your distinction.

This is so because of the truth of an old adage in marketing strategy: The deciding factor in a battle between a grizzly and crocodile is terrain. Or in this case, the battle between one big grizzly and a hundred smaller crocs.

The Inquirer cannot go into the swamps of micro-local coverage and expect to win a battle against the myriad array of local publications and websites, even if it executes wonderfully on its local coverage.

The local publications — the hundreds of little crocs — own this space. I’ve seen it tried time and time again, by The Philadelphia Bulletin, with its hyper-local editions; by The Inquirer, with its well-done “Neighbors” sections; by The Washington Post most recently as it gave almost block-by-block coverage of its surroundings.

The big grizzlies emerge from the swamp with a dozen crocs hanging from their ears, noses and mouths, their tails between their legs and and nothing else to show for it.

At weeklies and “Patch-like” web sites, low rate ads and free subscriptions support a low-paid staff of stringers and hobbyists. Small weeklies are inherently adapted to that biosphere. But big metros can’t run in that terrain. Even if they are changed in how they gather and present news, they never will obtain that level of local readerships imitating their smaller adversar

The past thirty years gives the lie to any such strategy.

So if hyper-local journalism for metros has been thoroughly disproved, why is Norcross so vigorously following it? Is he actively attempting to undermine good investigative reporting, or just dumb about the business history of newspapers?

My guess is the latter, but the former comes hand-in-hand by his mere presence. His reputation for succeeding at all costs, makes me think he thinks he is actually steering the business in the right direction. He is also acting with the impulse of a politician who has run some masterful campaigns using regional marketing.

But many of those campaigns have been negative attack ads, aimed at a short-term goal of turnout on one Election Day. Every day is election day when you are in the newspaper business and readers vote you up and down each day. He does not seem to grasp that, having not run positive campaigns for a real product or service, just “rip your face off” framing of politicians.

Through his misunderstanding of the business of publishing, then, he is demoting quality Casablanca coverage to chicken-dinner coverage in South Jersey.

But beyond that business shortcoming is the political advantage of demoting such coverage: No more stories on Norcross. No more stories on his political allies. And no more stories like that on his nominal political opponents, who he also needs to deal with. (Norcross was thought to have made a general cease-fire political deal with Republican Chris Christie; at the very least, Norcross did not oppose him vigorously during the last election.)

That is the biggest conflict here, one touched gently upon (but admirably enough) by a Philadelphia Magazine story by Steve Volk.

Norcross is the conflict, because he is one of the biggest stories in the region. He can’t possibly run the business (through factotum publishers) without placing the paper in conflict.

But he is.

And the manner in which he is running that business will only drive The Inquirer more deeply into the ground.

We’ve covered the trap of hyper-local journalism, where you jettison Casablanca coverage for a vague promise of local ads and readers already owned outright by established local papers.

Then surely, as he has promised, Norcross’s reinvented plan for the web will save the day – and allow a strong editorial presence.

Again, his inexperience in the business stands out.

Two newspapers seem to have found the right formula for online: The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Both do it through this formula:

They know and respect the fact that Casablanca type coverage is essential and core to their business.
They allow free browsing of their websites.
But the “free” goes only so far and is “metered” so that at five or ten stories a flag pops up for the month and says please subscribe.
This has popped revenues for the two publications, but the results also pose a serious warning to others. The “pay wall” works but only to a point. It does not come close to repeating the old magic formula where ads paid the freight for the whole enterprise.

Nancy Phillips
New types of “native advertising” are needed, as are events and memberships. And most importantly: a very strong print product.

Compare the Norcross strategy, which is an inferior version of an already failed and disastrous plan by The Boston Globe: Run two websites, one free and one pay-walled and present two distinct faces of your product to the public.

Bill Marimow
In the real world, this means that Philly.com exists as the free “link-bait” driven, tarted-up face of The Inquirer and Daily News, while the real websites of the two publications, with more suitable demeanors, lay behind a formidable pay wall, without any sort of metered introduction, and no promotions.

The result?

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer home page – the real Inquirer – gave an update on the 16,000 still without power in its region.

Philly.com told you about an app that allowed you to hook up with fellow fliers and have sex in the bathroom.

The strategy there is based on long ago tactics of pumping up page hits. The airplane sex blog is a quick redo of what is trending on search engines or Twitter and repeated on Philly.com in hopes that more search engines will find Philly.com and present more pages so that automatic web ad placement services will through a few micro-cents toward Philly.com. (766,361 other mentions of this app were present on Google at this writing, to give you a feel for the near infinite pit of competition Philly.com casts itself into.)

The problem with that should be self-evident to any marketer or economist. When you commoditize your news in such a manner, you remove your value proposition. You’ll always be running in tenth or twentieth place in rankings, drain your local value, and be assigned low-rent “belly fat” ads.

Worse, such web ad rates have plunged into the basement and below in recent months, as algorithms grow crueler and crueler to such pretenders.

And thus does the Norcross strategy consume itself.

He wants to fire Bogey and Bergman– and hire a few more extras. His strategy decreases the chances that the Inquirer will write its local versions of Casablanca, lowers the editorial quality, and undermines the revenue base in one deft and utterly complete misunderstanding of the business.

My guess is this will be a shock to him.

He is used to being the smartest guy in the room. And perhaps he has been.

But it’s never been this big a room. Or this type of room. And he’s never had this spotlight.

He’s put himself in a place where he can’t be the victor, even if he succeeds in winning the court battle.

George Norcross, the ultimate ‘can do’ guy, has put himself in a can’t win situation.

One hopes The Inquirer will write a big Casablanca of a story about that someday. That is, if Norcross does not succeed in turning a once grand newspaper into a South Jersey shopper.

“Hey, you, Mr. Frump, who are you to say to us our sons and brothers and husbands are all dead? Who are you to say there is no hope?”

Those words from Lotte Fredette some 30 yearUnknowns ago ring in my ears as the Malaysian airline saga proceeds today. She would become a friend, a confederate, a colleague over the decades, a strong voice for ship safety and reform. But then she was spitting mad, her gentle German accent pointed and clipped.  I felt the intensity of her eyes long before I met her in person.

The Phillies had just won the World Series and in the shadow of the stadium in October 1980, the SS Poet had slipped away, cleared the Capes of the Delaware and sailed out into the Gulf Stream where it simply disappeared, along with 34 officer and crew, including Lottie’s beloved son.

I had filed a few short stories on the missing ship and then, after consulting search experts, filed a longer story stating that in all probability the ship and those on her were lost.

“Look, these are just the hard facts,” I told Lotte over the phone.  “I’m the messenger here of bad tidings, and I am sorry for your loss, but if no one else has made it clear to you, I guess the story does.  The ship is almost certainly gone, m’am.”

She implored me to continue covering the story and pressure the Coast Guard to continue searching for the ship.  It was a fair enough request to simply quote her and the group of parents, husbands and siblings who were behind the request.  At their invitation, I slipped into a Coast Guard briefing on Governor’s Island in New York, and reported the heartfelt grief of the families.  I was not in a position to shut down all hope.  Who was?

Perhaps if this were a lost passenger ship or a lost airliner, I would have pursued the search for months and months, as the current news media is now.  Eyeballs do not attach themselves to merchant ship losses.  If they did, CNN would be busy.  A big ship goes down at sea on average once a month, with little fanfare other than the sobs of Filipino wives, Senegalese mothers, Haitian sisters and the relatives of other third world crew members.   Even American deaths could not hold the headlines long.

For Lotte and me this may have been a blessing.  Make no mistake. The survivors did not fare that well.  A friend wrote a book about the SS Poet and of particular pain was the inability of the survivors to come to term with the deaths of those never found — and no certain cause of death.  At the extreme, there was no certainty of death.

But at least they did not twist in the wind at every CNN report, every “ping” and every political and expert comment.

Every year on the anniversary, they would take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry round trip and at the mouth of the Delaware Bay at the rough point where last contact was made with the Poet, drop flowers and a wreath.

And the rest of the years, Lotte and a dedicated corps of Poet relatives turned their attention to reforming the maritime safety industry.  As did I.  The SS Poet hearing was a laugh and a coverup of an American system that sent old unsafe ships like the Poet out to sea.  Three years later “the Poet mothers” (as I came to call them) attended the hearing of the wreck of the SS Marine Electric and heard the late Captain Robert M. Cusick take the witness stand and blow the lid off that bad system.  Five years later, the entire system would implode thanks to those who maintained hope for the system and the pragmatic patience to force that system to work.

Some still spin stories of the Poet’s fate, some in good faith, others from boredom or delusion.  Drug dealers hijacked it.  Or Reagan shipped arms to Iran in an “October Surprise Scenario” and Lottie’s son and the crew are still alive in a secret compound in Iran.  I’ve thumped those melons; none seemed ripe.  Or real.

But you can peddle hope and mystery for a long time if you don’t thump very hard.

I wonder some whether I would have jumped onto the “hope” story if there had been more popular demand for stories about missing mariners.  There is a natural appeal to those.  The child in the well.  The miners in the shaft.  They are legitimate stories.

To a point.  But at what point are they not?

There are no doubt survivors who bless CNN for its continued coverage and keeping the heat on officials.  There are for sure those who are suffering by the moment as the coverage continues.   Hope grasps at all that floats by.

At what point does the continued reporting turn salacious? At what point is “hope” turned into a sick trick for sweeps week?

Those aren’t original thoughts.  As a newsman, I know they are not as easy to answer as I might think.  But as one who has gone through this several times in my career, I know there is an overall commandment: report hope and report truth.

I know that I was wrong all those years ago to suggest there was no hope for the relatives of the Poet crew.  But I know too that when hope becomes the dominant element in your reporting, you are no longer a reporter.  Or  friend.